In the grand tradition of the Flandrien, the quietly-spoken Stijn Devolder (Trek Factory Racing) seems to champion actions over words. This is, after all, the man whose lone contribution to Twitter since setting up an account last winter – surely under duress – has been to write: “No time to tweet. Out riding my bike.”
It was hardly surprising, then, that as he reported for duty at the opening stage of the Three Days of De Panne on Tuesday morning, Devolder was non-committal about how well he had recuperated from his heavy fall at Dwars door Vlaanderen last week, when he briefly lost consciousness before remounting and riding to the finish in Waregem.
Although the 35-year-old lined out at E3 Harelbeke just 48 hours later, he understandably made little impression at the head of the race, and then sat out the windswept Gent-Wevelgem in preparation for De Panne.
“I don’t know exactly how much I’ve recovered,” Devolder told Cyclingnews after signing on ahead of stage 1. “On Friday I was really bad, but there was only one day to rest before it. But now I’ve had three days between E3 and this to recover a little bit, so I hope to have the good feeling again a little bit. I wait and I hope for the best.”
A little over four hours later, Devolder provided a more emphatic answer as to the state of his recovery when he punched his way clear on the Berendries as part of the six-man break that ultimately decided the day. More importantly, perhaps, the cameo also offered him some reassurances ahead of Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.
“I was not sure how I would feel today. So for me, and for the team, we really needed this to have some confidence back after the black week we had last week,” Devolder said afterwards.
The finale of the stage included the climb of the Eikenmolen, decisive in each of Devolder’s back-to-back Flanders victories of 2008 and 2009, although with final overall victory in mind, he made no attempt to drop his companions there and had to settle for third place in the downhill sprint in Zottegem, behind Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal).
“The next two stages are dangerous for echelons and crashes so we will have to be with the team at the front and try to survive that, and then hopefully make a great TT on the final day,” he said.
Belgian takes the leading role for Tour of Flanders
In an interview with Het Nieuwsblad earlier in the week, Devolder stated that he believed he could win a third Tour of Flanders, and his role in Trek Factory Racing’s strategy has shifted dramatically since Fabian Cancellara was ruled out due to the injuries sustained in his crash at E3 Harelbeke on Friday.
“Of course, we have to try to do something on Sunday on our own. Fabian was the main favourite and it’s always good to have a strong rider like this in your team,” Devolder told Cyclingnews on Tuesday morning. “Now he’s not here but it’s no reason to panic. We still keep the focus for Sunday and we’ll try to do something with the team we have here.”
Devolder’s twin Ronde victories came during his spell at QuickStep and owed much to the strength in depth of his team, and in particular, to having one Tom Boonen as a foil. The contrast between his unhappy two-year sojourn as a captain at Vacansoleil and his subsequent reanimation upon signing up as a deluxe domestique for Cancellara in 2013 suggests that he is better-suited to a supporting role. With Gert Steegmans also since ruled out through injury, however, the reins of outright leadership at Trek belong to Devolder on Sunday.
“It was a good role to be there in the final with Fabian and maybe to help him in the final if possible,” Devolder admitted. “But now he’s not here so if something happens and I have good legs I have to do it myself. That’s how it is now.”
Devolder’s resurgent and surprisingly strong showing at the Tour of Flanders two years ago came on the back of a short midweek trip to Valencia ahead of the race, but since then he has returned to his traditional build-up of tackling the Three Days of De Panne, a race he won overall back in 2005.
“In 2013, the weather was extremely cold and the team wasn’t doing De Panne, so back then it was better to go to the south to have some long training,” Devolder explained. “This year, it’s pretty windy but the temperatures are pretty good for the moment and I hope to have three good days again to have some self-confidence again for Sunday.”
The absence of Boonen and Cancellara ought to make for a particularly open Tour of Flanders. “With Fabian not there, the race will be different,” Devolder agreed. “There are a lot of contenders: Stybar, Sagan, Geraint Thomas, Roelandts, Van Avermaet, Vanmarcke… You can say ten names, easily.”
And though he daren’t say so himself, far less tweet it, perhaps even Devolder.